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Tasmanian devils may be getting nicer for survival, new study finds (VIDEO)


A live Tasmanian Devil (C) walks down a simulated country road at Taronga Zoo's new Tasmanian Devil Breeding Centre in Sydney on June 30, 2010. The center will play an important role in helping to save the world's largest remaining carnivorous marsupial, allowing visitors to the zoo to see conservation action, with an outdoor 'classroom' showing the difficulties the devil faces in the wild.


Greg Wood

Tasmanian Devils, Australia's famously cantankerous predatory marsupials, may be becoming kinder and gentler in the interest of survival.

A new study out of the University of Tasmania, published in the British Ecological Society's Journal of Animal Ecology, found that less aggressive Tasmanian Devils were less likely to get Devil Facial Tumour Disease, an infectious cancer.

It's currently unclear exactly how the disease is transmitted, but "direct inoculation of tumor cells" - ie, via biting - is a primo suspect. 

As Tasmanan Devils consider savagely biting one another to be roughly the social equivalent of a friendly human handshake, Devil Facial Tumour Disease is  rampant, killing off scores of the feisty beasts, and placing the very survival of the species in serious jeopardy.

Read More: Thylacine, or Tasmanian Tiger - Parks and Wildlife Service, Tasmania 

The most aggressive devils are the most likely to get bitten, and thus are most at risk, the researchers said.

Which means that kinder gentler Tasmanian Devils - the kind who get pushed around at the water cooler, or maybe get their lunch money stolen - might be more likely to live long enough to spread their genes. 

Read more: QuickDraw on weird Australian animal diseases (remember koalas with Chlamydia?) 

Lead author Dr Rodrigo Hamede speculates that species survival advocates could separate Tasmanian Devils into "shy" and "bold" types.

"We could then use this information to develop a management strategy to reduce the spread of the disease by boosting natural selection of less aggressive, and therefore more resilient, devils," Hamede said in a British Ecological Society press release. 

Read more: Biting injuries and transmission of Tasmanian devil facial tumour disease - Journal of Animal Ecology 

Devil Facial Tumour disease is weird: it's one of a very few contagious cancers known to science, and only Tasmanian Devils get it.

The disease - which appears to have cropped up relatively recently, according to Save the Tasmanian - produces hugely unpleasant-looking cancerous lesions around the animal's face and mouth, disabling and eventually killing it. 

Which is unfortunate, as predatory marsupials are already scarce.

Meat-eating marsupials like Tasmian Devils and Thylacines (Tasmanian tigers) were eventually pushed out of mainland Australia by the swifter, smarter dingo, which arrived on the scene around 3,500 years ago, likely brought over by humans. 

Read more: Save the Tasmanian Devil 

Tasmanian devils and Thylacines managed to hang on in Tasmania, but even that profoundly precarious existence was threatened when European settlers, anxious for their livestock and eager to shoot at things, began taking out their frustrations on native wildlife.

Thylacines are now almost certainly extinct in Tasmania, while Tasmanian Devils are becoming scarcer and scarcer, both due to habitat loss and their curious contagious cancer affliction. 

The one bright spot in all this Tassie Devil tragedy: research being carried out on Devil Facial Tumour Disease could theoretically help ward off or treat infectious cancers if they found their way into humans, says Scientific American. 

Here's Jeff Corwin tangling with Tasmanian Devils. They're so adorably angry. Which, I suppose I would be as well if I were both rare and likely to contract some sort of fatal and disfiguring face cancer in my short, brutal lifetime.